By Elizabeth Baumann
A Reading from the Gospel of Mark 7:1-23
1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God) — 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
A friend of mine once pointed out that when people ask about our spiritual lives, they’re asking how much time we’re spending in prayer, whether we attended thus-and-such church services, or how much of the Bible we’ve been reading — all worthy indicators of spiritual health presumably, but nonetheless, only signs of the thing, not the thing itself. The Pharisees in today’s lesson do something similar. They love the forms tradition has given them, but they’ve lost sight of the meaning, replacing it with self-importance.
Recently I heard someone give a wonderful picture of this when she described swimming in the ocean. If you don’t constantly check landmarks to see where you are, you can drift really far out to sea without realizing it. Likewise if you’re not constantly reconnecting with God. And, unfortunately, the way we often talk about spiritual life runs the risk of promoting drift — of upholding the forms of faith without their meaning. A Bible reading plan is a really good idea, but it’s a terribly fine line between reading to listen to God and reading to the end of the day’s verses so they can be checked off. Planned prayers of any kind run the risk of encountering the same danger.
When Jesus teaches in this lesson that we are defiled by the things that come from our hearts, the reverse is also true. The fruitfulness we’re called to flows out of the relationship with God that transforms out hearts; it’s that relationship we’re meant to engage when we pray, or read, or go to church. So be brave: throw out anything in your Christian life that presents the specter of an empty form. So you quit that Bible-in-a-Year plan, or don’t finish the novena, or stop going to that extra service. God wants the real you, fully present to him, not your checklist.
Elizabeth Baumann is a seminary graduate, a priest’s wife, and the mother of two small daughters. A transplant from the West Coast, she now lives in “the middle of nowhere” in the Midwest with too many cats.
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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer
Today we pray for:
Trinity Episcopal Church, Vero Beach, Fla.
The Diocese of Derry and Raphoe (Church of Ireland)